Uğur Ümit Üngör lectures about pro-state paramilitary violence in Syrian conflict

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 12:00am



“Shabbiha: Assad’s Paramilitaries and Mass Violence in Syria”

Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör (Utrecht University, Department of History, and NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam)

October 3, 2019

Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör (Utrecht University, Department of History, and NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam) gave a public lecture about the role of paramilitary militias in cases of mass violence, focusing on the example of pro-state paramilitary violence in the Syrian conflict. The lecture is based on Professor Üngör’s forthcoming monograph of the same title, which builds upon his broader and comparative research on the global phenomenon of paramilitarism. 

Professor Üngör opened his lecture with two vignettes. He recalled the beginnings of his interest in the topic of paramilitarism. In 2015, while still absorbed in his research on the Armenian genocide, Professor Üngör learned about the destruction of an Armenian church in Syria by ISIS. This event prompted him to pay more attention to contemporary conflicts and mass violence. Then another event happened in 2015 that inspired Professor Üngör to focus specifically on paramilitarism in the Syrian conflict. In 2015, President Assad’s nephew, Suleiman al-Assad, killed a Syrian army colonel in public, but remained unpunished. According to Professor Üngör, this illustrates the power of militias in Syria and the fact that they are above the law. He was fascinated by what this episode revealed about the relationship of paramilitaries to the power structures of the state. 

In the first part of the lecture, Professor Üngör provided an overview of a global history of paramilitarism. He defined paramilitary groups as irregular armed organizations that carry out acts of violence against civilians and other groups. When it comes to this phenomenon, Professor Üngör emphasized his interest in activities of these organizations both during conflict and after conflicts have ended. In his research, he focuses on their relationship to the state in both of these periods. He then provided a number of examples of paramilitary organizations throughout history and throughout the world, including death squads responsible for carrying out the Armenian Genocide and paramilitary groups in the former Yugoslavia, especially Arkan’s Tigers, which were responsible for mass violence in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Professor Üngör also provided examples from Indonesia and Sudan. 

After this overview, Professor Üngör focused on the emergence of paramilitary organizations in the Syrian conflict and their relationship to the state. He pointed out that the Syrian government has a wide net of very well-trained secret apparatuses that were unleashed on the population during the conflict, including the army, military intelligence, and the Special Forces. However, according to Professor Üngör, Syrian paramilitaries, or Shabbiha – which means “ghosts” in Syrian Arabic – exist outside of these structures. These paramilitaries are different from private militias and terrorists, Professor Üngör argued. They are secretive and covert organizations, but the violence they commit is public. Notwithstanding their connection to the government, it is difficult to tell how the Shabbiha are involved in the government and how they get their orders. Through the shadowy command structure, the government is able to always maintain plausible deniability, arguing that these militias are acting independently, when in fact they are instruments of the state. When it comes to Shabbiha, Professor Üngör specified his interest in the following questions: who are the men in Shabbiha? What type of men are they? How did they get involved in the conflict? Professor Üngör detailed his particular interest in the motives of these men and what the violence they commit means to them. 

Professor Üngör explained that Shabbiha first appeared in 2011 on the streets of Syria, when the government mobilized them to suppress the demonstrations against President Assad. In early 2012, both the uprising and Shabbiha became militarized. During that year, Shabbiha formalized their structures, devolved state power and gathered more power on local level themselves. In addition, they further criminalized the Syrian conflict. Professor Üngör noted that, although the state created Shabbiha, this organization eventually became too powerful for the state to control them and demobilize them. 

Professor Üngör then turned his focus on individual men that joined Shabbiha in order to answer his questions about who they are and their motives. He discussed his research methodology, which differed from his previous research on the Armenian Genocide. Professor Üngör said that, because the Syrian conflict is still ongoing, he gathered a lot of his data from social media, including Shabbiha members’ pictures, videos, posts, comments, and so on. He supplemented this material with immersive ethnography and interviews he conducted with perpetrators and survivors, mostly those who fled Syria and now live in other countries. This methodology enabled him to learn about Shabbiha men motivations and experiences. He discovered that these men were mostly in their twenties in 2011, were mostly poorly educated and had low profile jobs, and were, therefore, empowered by the conflict. However, Professor Üngör pointed out that, regardless of the existing commonalities, their path to violence differed based on their location. For example, Shabbiha members in Aleppo were the members of a single Sunni tribe. In Homms, Shabbiha members came from the Alawite minority, and were mobilized through personal connections. Finally, in Damascus, clientelism and the securing of connections drove the mobilization into Shabbiha. 

Professor Üngör concluded his lecture by pointing out that paramilitarism in Syria is a diverse phenomenon, as suggested by the examples of Shabbiha in the cities of Aleppo (tribalization), Homms (sectarianization), and Damascus (clientelization). In addition, he emphasized a few key points related to Shabbiha. First, according to Professor Üngör, this paramilitary organization is a force multiplier for the state. Second, Shabbiha lend the regime popular legitimacy because they are irregular and civilian. Third, with Shabbiha, the state is able to maintain plausible deniability. However, Shabbiha also spread complicity by tying certain groups in society to the regime. Finally, Professor Üngör pointed to some of the problems related to and effects of Shabbiha, including the fragmentation of security apparatus, devolution of power, and the criminalization of economy that they are perpetuating. 

Professor Üngör’s lecture was followed by a long and thought-provoking Q&A session, which included questions about the extent to which plausible deniability is credible if Shabbiha actions can be traced to the government; the role of Shabbiha in territories controlled by ISIS or those territories lost by Assad; personal gain as part of motivation for joining Shabbiha; the existence of any groups or individuals who are not involved in the conflict and remain neutral; the relationship between “making of the self” through the participation in Shabbiha and “making of the self” on social media; occurrences of remorse among former Shabbiha members; the presence of women in Shabbiha; the distribution and the type of power in Shabbiha; and the connections between paramilitary groups in different parts of Syria. 

Summary by Badema Pitic

"Shabbiha: Assad’s Paramilitaries and Mass Violence in Syria" - Public lecture by Uğur Ümit Üngör is Associate Professor at the Department of History at Utrecht University Uğur Ümit Üngör (Associate Professor of History, Utrecht University)

This lecture offered an examination of pro-state paramilitary violence in the Syrian conflict. It analyzed the emergence and transformation of pro-state paramilitarism in Syria in the context of the uprising and civil war. 


Badema Pitic